Spanning contentious themes of morality and psychology, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange sparked polarizing reception among critics upon its 1941 release. The film, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, follows the exuberant amoral acts of Alex, a thug in a dystopian city, until his gang betrays him to the authorities and, rather than be taught right from wrong, is brainwashed to detest sex and violence through inhumane techniques.
While some critics, such as Vincent Canby of The New York Times, applaud the movie for its deliberate obscenity as a means to challenge the audience, other film critics, namely Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert, reviewed the film with disdain for its iconoclastic intent and graphic nature. Critics continue deconstructing the now classic Kubrick film, as filmmaker Jeremiah Kipp offers perspective over sixty years after its release, commending the film for its gripping narrative on audiences that appreciate it’s social lens.
The source of discrepancy in these critical reviews is linked to their interpretation of the seemingly haphazard violent exploits in the film, their outlook on Kubrick’s storytelling via wide-angle lenses, and their regards to its predecessor –– 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lewdness of A Clockwork Orange is indubitably the driving source of controversy in its critiques, splitting the spectrum of reviews. Canby views the “aimless violence” as “formally structured” and “an exercise of aimless choices,” whereas Ebert slams the film as “an ideological mess” as it seems to “celebrate the nastiness of its hero” in “a paranoid right-wing fantasy.
Furthermore, while Canby finds the film “dazzles the senses and the mind,” Ebert expresses it as “just plain talky and boring. ” These vividly clashing sentiments stem from the reviewers’ expectation and perception of violence in the film. Canby wrote his review for The New York Times one day after the film opened at the cinema, heralding it as “a great deal more than merely horror show. ” He endorsed the meaning the violence represented, as well as applauding the artistic techniques Kubrick utilized to convert them.
Nevertheless, Ebert, whose review was published over seven weeks later, directly criticized the “New York critical establishment” for having “really hyped” the film “for more than it’s worth. ” This indicates Ebert had some level of expectancy prior to seeing the film, suggesting that he was aware of Canby’s review, or another New Yorker review. This offers some explanation as to why Ebert’s diction is considerably harsh and subjective––to the point of disappointment, causing Canby’s remarks appear more objective when juxtaposed.
However, Jeremiah Kipp offers a larger elucidation: A Clockwork Orange is a “game [that] Kubrick is playing with [the audience]. ” Kipp expands further, claiming the film is “an avenue into understanding a corrosion of society” and––depending on whether the viewer subscribes to that notion, “the film may be appreciated as his finest masterwork” or the viewer “might throw up their hands and accuse Kubrick of being immoral. ” Kipp’s perspective encompasses both Canby and Ebert’s reviews, being written six decades after them.
This doubtlessly lends him an advantage when reviewing the film in a somewhat retrospective manner and allows him to formulate his arguments for and against the film meticulously. Additionally, considering Canby and Ebert reviewed the film in an age where explicit violence, language, and sex had not yet become saturated in cinema, Kipp would presumably be more accustomed to such images and interaction and thus find the film, at least to some degree, less visually appalling than it was for 1941 audiences.
Regardless, time does not diminish the grotesque nature of A Clockwork Orange, as the cinematography, in itself, is directed in such a way to make audiences conflicted. When analyzing the plot of A Clockwork Orange, it is mystifying how a character as overtly cruel as Alex captivates the spectators of the film. All three reviewers credit this fascination to Kubrick’s implementation of wide-angle lenses, although there is disparity concerning its function, necessity, and effectiveness.
Canby refers to Kubrick’s wide-angle lens style as methodical storytelling–– “to distort space relationships within scenes” and evoke feelings of “disconnection between lives… people and environment” as if it were “an actual, literal fact. ” Canby is contending that the wide lens is Kubrick’s way of drawing the audience in to sympathize with Alex, though this is perhaps Ebert’s most despised fault with the director. “What in hell is Kubrick up to here? ” he poses the reader in disbelief.
“Does he really want us to identify with the antisocial tilt of Alex’s psychopathic little life? To Ebert, the wide-angle lens is merely a gimmick, and any other reason for Kubrick to utilize it is unfathomable. Kipp differs, however, that the “distance isn’t meant to shunt off the moral questions of the film, but to keep us engaged and, hopefully, contemplative about our own sense of morality. ” Whereas Kipp and Canby interpret Kubrick’s cinematic technique as a means to provoke rumination that challenges the viewer to examine their own morality, Ebert believes the opposite––that Kubrick’s main interest with the wide-angle lenses is to prod the audience to “cheer” for Alex as he commits endless atrocities.
Ebert’s position on this, again, may be biased from expectation, as he complains the film “used visuals to alter the book’s point of view. ” Apparently, Ebert is familiar with Anthony Burgess’ novel, and likely was before viewing the film. This corroborates the aforementioned assumption that Ebert entered the film theatre in anticipation, and dispersed from it dissatisfied and bitter. Thusly, Canby and Kipp appear to look at the film from a more neutral standpoint, although both tend to acknowledge the film favorably, particularly Canby.
Canby reviews the film in a sort of giddy mood, possibly rushing to express his immediate thoughts on the film upon recently viewing it. Ebert retorts nearly two months later, in an almost rant-like fashion, and occasionally directly addresses his readers as if to include them in his tirade. Nearly seventy years later, Kipp also addresses his readers, but in this instance he gives them the burden of perspective on the film, and expresses his own sentiments thoroughly in an intelligent tone.
Each diverging conclusion of the film, ergo, is somewhat rooted in the timeliness of the author to publish their review, which subsequently effected the quality of thought conveyed in each analysis, consequently leading to their interpretation of the reasons and purpose behind Kubrick’s use of the wide-angle lens. Critics of A Clockwork Orange will naturally be familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s prior epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, inevitably drawing comparisons between the two works.
Ebert, for example, affirms the films share “all sorts of references” in their final acts, as well as identical camera techniques throughout the film, placing the “lighting emphasis on the eyes” giving “characters a slightly scary, messianic look. ” He is appalled by this, as it leads to the notion that Kubrick “actually seems to be implying… that in a world where society is criminal, the citizen might as well be a criminal, too. ” Clearly, Ebert favors 2001 over Kubrick’s ensuing film, unlike Canby, who called A Clockwork Orange “even technically more interesting than 2001.
This comparison is brought to the forefront with Ebert’s attack on the “New York critical establishment,” as he presents the possibility that “they missed the boat on 2001, so maybe they were trying to catch up with Kubrick on this one. ” Ebert presumably suspects Canby, who is from New York, rated the film to redeem a past review of Kubrick, or perhaps “just needed a good movie cover story for Christmas. ” Regardless, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains fundamental in the understanding of the critical response to A Clockwork Orange.
Kipp regards the film as “a sort of sequel [to 2001] about our planet rotting away from the inside,” but lacks any further explanation. This is reasonable in the sense that 2001: A Space Odyssey was considerably more relevant in 1941 culture than 2007, as well as being Kubrick’s most recent work to compare to A Clockwork Orange. Kipp and Canby also share a focus on plot in their review, whereas Ebert seems to constantly be rebuking Kubrick and how he manipulates characters. These differing mentalities would also corroborate that the reviewers’ analyses are based upon the manner in which they perceive the film.
For Ebert, A Clockwork Orange was a letdown after 2001: A Space Odyssey, while Kipp found it supplementary, and Canby found it continually more riveting as the story unravelled. Notwithstanding, viewing the film from different perspectives is conceivably the driving factor which led these three critics to reach each of their independent conclusions. Though A Clockwork Orange received mixed reviews from Vincent Canby, Roger Ebert, and Jeremiah Kipp, they all approach the film from three predominant aspects: amoral violence, wide-angle lenses, and Kubrick’s other recent film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
From these elements spawned immense deviation, whether questioning the intent of Stanley Kubrick, finding meaning in the portrayal of unscrupulous acts, or regarding the film’s moral and psychological implications. While Ebert vehemently attacked the film for it’s glorification of enormity, Canby praises A Clockwork Orange for both cerebral and emotional achievements, similarly to Kipp, whom values the film for it’s interwoven themes of morality and free will.
Regardless of the film’s interpretation, however, Ebert’s insight that “we’ll probably be debating A Clockwork Orange for a long time” resonates just as true today as it was in 1941. The film dabbles in timeless themes of morality and corruption, immersing the audience with vividly gripping storytelling, and rolls into its credits leaving the audience with a certain light of ambiguity and bewilderment. Just as it was when it first hit cinemas, A Clockwork Orange will doubtlessly be a spellbinding source of discussion henceforward.